Guest Column | Checks and Balances

A regular review and appraisal of the nuclear doctrine would help to fine tune it as per strategic requirements

Lt Gen. B.S. Nagal (retd)

The only thing that is constant is change — Heraclitus

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often — Winston Churchill

Fifteen years ago India released its draft nuclear doctrine and 11 years ago, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) released the final doctrine on 3 January 2003. The salient points in the CCS approval were: Credible Minimum Deterrent (CMD); No First Use Policy (NFU); Massive Retaliation (MR); Non-use of nuclear weapons against Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS); and option of use of nuclear weapons in case of major attack by biological or chemical weapons.

The CCS release read in conjunction with the draft doctrine affirmed nuclear deterrence is related to ‘India’s strategic interests, deter use or threats of use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons’, the requirements of deterrence would weigh in the design of the nuclear forces and the strategy on the level of capability.

One can also infer the great powers equation in the calculus. The nuclear doctrine did not cater for conventional deterrence or the lower side of the spectrum of war/violence, on the other hand conventional deterrence was expected to raise the threshold for nuclear war. In the draft doctrine paragraph 2.7 stated ‘highly effective conventional military capabilities shall be maintained to raise the threshold of outbreak, both of conventional military conflict as well as that of threat or use of nuclear weapons’.

Therefore, India’s nuclear deterrence is clearly strategic in nature, and is linked to the four aspects stated above i.e. nuclear, biological, chemical and strategic interests. There are many quarters where the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis proxy war is questioned. The issue of proxy war is not linked to nuclear doctrine. Conventional deterrence must counter the proxy war and terrorism. The objectives of the US and UK nuclear policy are also similar, i.e. to deter nuclear, biological or chemical threats or protect vital interests or prevent blackmail/coercion.

There is a school of thought in India that the country should adopt a strategy of nuclear war-fighting, based on our neighbours’ developing tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) and adopt a quid pro quo option instead of massive retaliation. At present, there is no common definition of TNW, the general understanding is that the weapon is of low yield, delivered by short range artillery or short range missile or aircraft for use in the battlefield area and could include forward airfields.

Therefore, the use of TNW will be limited to army field formations and logistics echelons or bases in support of offensive formations in the battle zone, forward aviation assets, forward air bases, critical command and control centres. It can be a link between conventional war and strategic nuclear exchange. In western parlance air delivered weapons not part of the strategic delivery systems of bigger yields are called non-strategic weapons. This, however, does not apply in the South Asia context.

The proponents of TNW bring out that this strategy is suited to overcome conventional inferiority by linking conventional war to nuclear at an early stage. TNW destroy ingressing conventional forces and stabilise the battlefield by defeating offensives, hence may help de-escalate a conflict. The weapons are very effective on point targets e.g. airfields, bridges, missile sites, choke points and lines of communication. As such, a nuclear war-fighting strategy is an option with countries with weaker/ inferior conventional forces.

The opponents of TNW highlight problems in adopting a nuclear war-fighting strategy. First, it proliferates nuclear weapons down to battlefield level, resulting in greater and faster demand for use of nuclear weapons. Second, at some point of time in the war, sooner than later, authority will be delegated to lower levels in the military, thus resulting in a lowered threshold. Third, escalation control cannot be imposed in a TNW, resulting in a spiral leading to strategic nuclear exchange. Fourth, large scale use of TNW will result in high radiation in populated areas and winds will spread this radiation to large tracts. TNWs result in an arms race and are inherently destabilising. Based on the arguments above it is not recommended as a strategy for India.

India will follow a strategy of strategic nuclear deterrence is clear from the overall doctrine, and has not indicated interest in nuclear war-fighting (the absence of development of delivery systems for TNW). It views nuclear weapons not for use but deterrence. If deterrence fails, only then use them as a last option. The strategic deterrence strategy is not destabilising and does not result in an arms race or battlefield use of nuclear weapons.

Considering the reasons and rationale for India’s strategic nuclear deterrence, it is in sync and consonance with world opinion, thought and logic and more importantly meets India’s requirements in the rapidly changing world power calculus, therefore does not require any change or modification. Overall, it can be said that our nuclear deterrence and strategic policy have worked effectively.

Credible Minimum Deterrent
India has two neighbours with nuclear weapons and both are in concert with each other on politico-military issues, thereby aggravating India’s security concerns. The capability being developed by one is far beyond their deterrence requirements. The four plutonium producing reactors and a uranium facility will allow building of a very large arsenal. The fissile material held by the other, too, is a matter of concern, especially coupled with the multiple delivery means available/ under development.

The first issue in the CCS approval of the nuclear doctrine was ‘Credible Minimum Deterrent’. The draft doctrine stated that it is a dynamic concept related to strategic environment, technological imperatives and the needs of national security. The Credible Minimum Deterrent, therefore, is a dynamic concept and caters to emerging and existing threats, it is not minimum in size as defined in western literature and provides planners the flexibility, space and scope to adjust to the strategic environment and national security needs, and we build our deterrent accordingly.

Today, with a policy of No First Use and Massive Retaliation, the concept of CMD must factor in ‘survivability and sufficient numbers’ that can inflict unacceptable damage. Adversary arsenal size, technological advances, defensive and offensive forces, protection and C4ISR are factors for considerations whilst arriving at the size, delivery means and yield of the deterrent. Development of nuclear capability being a lengthy process, it is prudent to plan on the positive side (except on a scale which may cause an arms race) while building capacities and strategic forces.

India correctly chose CMD in 2003, when only blurred contours of one adversary existed and little was known of the other adversary, events since then have validated the concept and provides India the necessary flexibility.

No First Use
The second aspect of the doctrine is No First Use (NFU). The advantages of this policy are that NFU is a defensive policy and reassuring globally that India is not an aggressive power. A NFU policy is good for crisis stability especially in a volatile geopolitical region. With NFU policy, India will always take a moral high ground whilst seeking nuclear disarmament or a nuclear weapons free world.

NFU can be a good policy when the weapon equation is very skewed e.g. China vs India in 1998 or US vs China in the Sixties, the weaker nation has no capability to challenge/cause any damage to the dominant power. It may also be a viable policy when the first use adversary has a very small arsenal and would not cause much damage, and the NFU state could absorb the nuclear strikes and then retaliate. The policy also prevents accidental exchange of nuclear strikes as weapons are not on hair trigger alert. NFU ensures better safety and security since it avoids deployment of nuclear weapons.

Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) can be worked better to reduce the chance of a nuclear exchange with a NFU policy. In India’s case, avoiding of economic sanctions by placating upset powers may have been a reason but probably was not because by 2003 the worst on the economic front was over.

The disadvantages of the NFU policy need deliberation. Firstly, NFU implies probable large scale destruction in own country, whilst a feeble argument can be made of limited strikes by the adversary on Indian forces in the adversary’s territory. There is no guarantee that this is the only possible scenario. On the contrary, if an adversary is to initiate a nuclear war then it must be such that it concludes on his terms, i.e., victory. In such an eventuality, the spectre of devastation must be foretold. This may sound alarming or pessimistic but no adversary will initiate a nuclear war only to de-escalate a conventional war fully knowing our policy of assured retaliation.

Secondly, in India there is hardly any debate on security policy issues, much less on the NFU policy. Inputs indicate that the Indian public in totality is not in sync with the policy. Some call it a cause of concern; others call it ‘the Panipat Syndrome’ of allowing the enemy to defeat us on our own soil. On the political plane, it was not put to public vote as India does not follow a system of referendum. The NDA government released the NFU policy in January 2003. The loss of the election by the NDA in 2004 did not politically validate the policy.

Thirdly, the nation has not been educated on the devastation of nuclear strikes and is psychologically not prepared to be destroyed.

Fourthly, to fight a war with constraints which jeopardise the future of a country is also morally wrong; no leadership has the right to place its population at peril without exhausting other options and opting only for NFU.

Fifthly, NFU policy cannot conduct a first strike on the adversary’s counterforce targets, thus allowing the adversary full capability to attrite own capability. In the current environment of mobile system on land and SSBNs at sea, the probability of destruction of the adversary strategic assets will be extremely low or negligible in a second strike, this therefore limits own retaliatory nuclear strikes to counter value targets, once again a moral dilemma.

Sixthly, NFU policy requires a very extensive and elaborate missile defence system across the country. However, cost and technology will allow it at select points, leaving the nation exposed to nuclear strikes.

Lastly, till date we have not witnessed escalation control agreements between nuclear powers, and therefore, fighting limited nuclear wars without destruction of strategic targets is not a feasible proposition.

Our adversaries have progressed rapidly in both ‘weapons’ and ‘delivery means’. A first strike will now devastate large parts of India. The older nuclear weapons state has improved and modernised its arsenal and delivery means in the last decade, and if there is a nuclear war, the damage to us will be enormous.

It is time to review our policy of NFU. The other choices are ambiguity or first use. Ambiguity has four sub-options of first use i.e. pre-emption, launch on warning (LoW), launch on launch (LoL) and NFU. Pre-emption gives the choice of time, targets and scale to the initiator and will pay the best dividends to safeguard the nation but it is also the most destabilising if announced to the adversary, but better than NFU.

The options of LoW have most first use advantages except there is a small window of opportunity for its execution, it depends on fine political judgment, but ensures protection of the country, and causes damage to the adversary’s leadership, arsenal and strategic targets. LoL is dependent on real time surveillance and intelligence, has an extremely small window of a few minutes for decision-making, with a very large number of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert, and is destabilising. The change from NFU to ambiguity will require better surveillance and monitoring systems, real time intelligence, high alert state of nuclear forces during crisis/war, better and faster readiness state in peace.

A change of policy to ambiguity is recommended, as it encompasses four options including NFU. The benefits that accrue include deterring first strike on India. It may be called destabilising, but four other nuclear weapon states follow this policy. It enhances and improves the psychological state of the nation. A shift to a proactive policy is reassuring to the public. It does not allow destruction of the nation and strategic forces at the outset; hence the arsenal is intact for use. It provides a better range of options to launch decapitating and/ or disarming strikes to deal with the adversary leadership/ arsenal, and allows a proactive CBM policy.

Massive Retaliation
The third policy directive in the nuclear doctrine is ‘massive retaliation (MR) to inflict unacceptable damage’. Paragraph 2.iii states: ‘Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.’ Paragraph retains the right of nuclear response to biological or chemical attacks. There is no standard definition or interpretation of this term, but for NFU let us assume it implies a very large number of counter value targets and whatever counterforce targets detected and identified at the time of retaliation, which results in the ruin of the target nation.

For a planner, it must include important industrial areas, population centres, strategic political centres, command systems/ centres and strategic delivery systems. There can be a debate on what constitutes unacceptable damage to an underdeveloped or a developed nation in concrete/ physical terms but no nation will survive if a large percentage of its economic power and civil population is destroyed.

At times doubts are raised over the strategy of MR. Reasons to doubt its applicability are:

• Gradual escalation/ quid pro quo will prevent large scale nuclear damage and is a pragmatic option;

• Response to a few or one tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) should not be disproportionate which could result in an all-out nuclear war;

• Escalation control should be practiced in conventional and nuclear war on moral and humanitarian considerations, however escalation control is plagued by problems of different planning parameters, communication breakdown in war, fog of war, desire for victory and intelligence inaccuracy; and,

• The strategy is not rational, our political leadership may not show resolve during crisis or at the time of decision.

MR is the declared policy, and must be implemented. The nation has placed faith in political leadership and the leadership is expected to fulfil their responsibility. In case we vacillate on the issue or raise doubts about our commitment to the policy, we will send wrong signals to our adversary(s).

Arguments in favour of massive retaliation are:

• Prevent further damage to India’s economic and population centres;

• Prevent further strikes on own nuclear forces;

• Decapitate adversary leadership to prevent further nuclear exchange;

• Avoid sudden escalation. There is no guarantee that the adversary will not jump many steps in the escalation ladder to full-scale nuclear strikes against a quid pro strategy;

• Escalation control in nuclear exchange is not feasible as no rules govern nuclear war;

• Own command and control system may be affected in case of a series of small scale nuclear exchange, and therefore, not be able to respond; and

• Lastly, the policy should bring about quick and early war termination. Hence it is said that MR should remain our strategy till NFU is our stated policy, if and when there is a change in our NFU policy then it would be in order to review MR for other options e.g. decapitation strike, disarming strikes, combination strikes or all out strikes.

Credibility, Command and Control
The subject of command and control are referred to in the CCS press release. Para 3 refers to Nuclear Command Authority, Political Council and Executive Council and to the authority to order nuclear retaliatory attacks. This is also referred to in Para 2.iv. Para 4 gives the broad charter of the Executive Council, and Para 6 refers to Alternate Chains of Command, and additional information can be derived from the draft doctrine. The CCS press release stated: ‘following information be shared with public’, thus the draft doctrine continues as a useful document.

Para4.3 (ii) of the draft doctrine states: ‘Procedures for the continuity of nuclear command and control shall ensure a continuing capability to effectively employ nuclear weapons’. Communications is one critical function of command and control. With advanced technology now available, it would be reasonable to assume that we have a survivable, effective, flexible, responsive and fail-safe system. All nuclear weapon states have developed Command and Control structures and C4ISR systems to ensure early warning, surveillance, monitoring, detection, retaliation and damage assessment.

India, too, has followed the same path as is evident from the doctrine/draft doctrine, be it planning, decision making, authorisation and chains of command, delegation, continuity of nuclear command and control, integrated plans, implementation procedures and processes. It would be reasonable to assume that India has a safe, secure, robust, survivable and protected Command and Control system.

Credibility principle was outlined at Para 4.1 of the draft doctrine. It stated: ‘Any adversary must know that India can and will retaliate with sufficient nuclear weapons to inflict destruction and punishment that the aggressor will find unacceptable if nuclear weapons are used against India and its forces’.

At public forums, seminars and private discussions the general doubt does arise if the civilian political leadership will demonstrate resolve to implement the doctrine if the need ever arises. These doubts have their origin in the past handling of crisis or security challenges by the nation, however it is expected that the leadership of a nuclear weapon state will deliver whenever the need arises. Questions are often raised on our nuclear signalling; that it has been weak if not poor.

A more proactive public communication will help reassure the public, and it should be practiced in the future, especially when we are committed to NFU. A unique feature of nuclear deterrent signalling has been the role of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientists in speaking on strategy, development and employment philosophy. The statements by the scientists also prematurely release information on delivery systems, which later become embarrassing when time lines are overshot/ delayed. A deliberate and well-thought out nuclear signalling policy should be put in place to communicate with the nation and send the desired message to the adversary(s). The political leadership must speak on select occasions on India’s nuclear policy to display the resolve and credibility without conveying an aggressive posture. An open paper on national security including nuclear policy should be issued periodically. This will invite debate and suggestions and enrich the policy.

Para 2.6 of the draft doctrine stated that ‘deterrence requires India maintain sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared nuclear forces’. Para 3.1 of the draft stated ‘India’s nuclear forces will be effective, enduring, diverse, flexible and responsive. Based on a Triad of aircraft, mobile land based missiles and sea based assets. Survivability of forces will be enhanced by a combination of multiple redundant systems, mobility, dispersion and deception’.

Para 3.2 of the draft doctrine stated ‘assured capability to shift from peace time deployment to fully employable forces in the shortest possible time. Ability to retaliate efficiently even in case of significant degradation by hostile strikes’. The directions are unambiguous and cover all aspects of the triad required by the strategic forces. The development strategy is futuristic and practical.

The time required for production of the triad of aircraft, land missiles and strategic submarines for nuclear missiles is based on the technological base of its industrial-military complex. In India this is vested in DRDO only, with negligible participation from the civil industry. To operationalise the nuclear deterrent, India too, has followed the path taken by other nuclear weapon states, the sequence being aircraft, land missiles and SSBNs. Each leg has its unique features and advantages, the air leg is the fastest to operationalise and is flexible in employment including recall or change. The land missiles are most responsive and have the shortest launch and strike time. Mobile missile systems have improved the survivability of land missiles. The sea leg is least vulnerable; practically invulnerable and responsive in short period of time.

India, faced with two nuclear threats, needs all three legs to ensure survivability, effectiveness, flexibility, responsiveness, diversity, safety and security of its nuclear forces. The state of India’s strategic weapons delivery system is well-known, courtesy our scientists, who to garner attention and seek recognition release information on development programmes prematurely, subsequent delays then become capability denial.

Today, India has two functional legs whereas the sea leg i.e. SSBN, awaits operationalisation. In the aircraft inventory India has aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons up to limited ranges. These category of aircrafts and methodology was followed by NATO/ WARSAW Pact, therefore provides India with a limited capability. There is a deficit of long range bombers with a capability to deliver cruise missiles or nuclear capable standoff air to surface missile, the DRDO/Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have not succeeded in this field in producing a bomber reflects poorly on our research organisations.

It is time to change the path and method we have taken to produce military hardware. The land missile programme has succeeded even though at a very slow pace compared to older nuclear powers. Missiles up to ranges of 4,000km have been operationalised. The Agni-5 now appears in the final stages of testing. With the maturing of the missile programme one can expect consolidation and reduction in the inventory, but once again we need to introspect and appraise the performance of DRDO, where required change must be made. The SSBN is the most challenging and complex, and this is where India’s capability has been found most wanting. INS Arihant, launched in 2009, is still to be commissioned into service, a denial of much-needed capability. Our programme for weapons delivery platforms has not fully delivered at the pace required by national security, and a detailed performance audit is required to address the shortcomings and deficiencies, and bring about structural changes in the way strategic programmes are organised.

Future developments required are MIRV and MaRV capability. MIRV does provide a system to increase the number of targets destroyed by one delivery vehicle, overcome missile interception defences, deliver more on a single missile, thereby reducing the delivery vehicles. However, the disadvantage of MIRV delivery missile loss does worry planners with small arsenals. MaRV is required to overcome missile interception defences, ensure assured strike and it also improves deterrence. Other aspects for future development are improved guidance systems, miniaturisation, bigger SSBNs, anti-satellite capability, space based sensors, earth penetrating systems and host of new technology required to overcome protection/ defensive systems.

The past few years have seen a debate on the yields of the Pokhran tests. Without doubting own capability we should plan/ have weapon systems which deliver the yield optimised by technical and strategic planners the world over, a majority of weapons today lie in the region of 150-500 KT. However, for each target there is a need for a specific weapon, be it a command post deep underground or mobile, nuclear weapon storage mostly underground or deep in hills/mountains, nuclear forces underground or deployed in field areas, nuclear installations generally above ground with some underground, economic or industrial zones open and spread out, population centres, military airfields, naval forces, army deployments mobile and dispersed, EMP at high altitude for destruction of systems and grids, earth or concrete systems penetration.

Para 5.4 of the draft doctrine stated ‘the survivability of the nuclear arsenal and effective command, control, communications, computing, intelligence and information systems shall be ensured’. Under the survivability clause one issue that can be evaluated is ballistic missile defence. To protect India with a ballistic missile defence is nearly impractical. However, critical elements of Command and Control, nuclear forces and important industrial/ populations can be protected.

Para 5.6 of the draft doctrine stated ‘space based and other assets shall be created to provide early warning, communications, damage/detonation assessment’. The surveillance and monitoring system for 360 degree coverage is a technological challenge which requires massive infrastructure and sensors in space, land, air and sea. The subject is secret. Very little is known about it except ‘interception missile’ tests by DRDO which have been in progress for over a decade now. It is prudent to assume that work is in progress on the BMD, and some day India will have a viable system to protect critical assets/systems. It is time to performance audit the DRDO, and where required take remedial action to bring in change.

Since the Pokhran-II test 16 years ago, India has progressed in the nuclear deterrent programme, the doctrine has undergone appraisal and evaluation, and Indian strategic planners have gained experience in application of doctrinal issues. There is a general agreement on the decision to become a nuclear power, on deterrence strategy, on development strategy, on building of a triad, on command and control structures.

However, there are differences of opinion on some aspects of the doctrine. The doctrine of strategic deterrence is sound, serves the objectives of deterrence and India would be ill-advised to shift to nuclear war-fighting. Credible Minimum Deterrent is a dynamic and flexible concept and serves Indian planners’ requirements. The most divisive feature is the NFU policy. As discussed earlier, there is a need to give greater space and options to India’s leadership by shifting to a policy of deliberate or studied ambiguity.

Ambiguity covers employment options from first use i.e. pre-emption, launch on warning, launch on launch and NFU, thus not defining the circumstances for use of nuclear weapons and complicating the adversary’s planning. The policy of massive retaliation is appropriate as long as India follows a NFU policy, but will undergo a change if India abandons NFU. Indian political leadership credibility comes under doubt at policy discussion forums. There is a need to conduct better nuclear signalling and obtain the confidence of the public on our nuclear doctrine.

The weapons delivery platform programme requires a performance audit and structural changes, to make it accountable for delivery and delays. A constant review and appraisal of our nuclear doctrine, would help us refine and improve it to adapt to the changing strategic environment, and further enrich the doctrine.

(The writer is former C-in-C, Strategic Forces Command, and first Chief, Strategic Programme Staff)

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